On Forming a New Kind of Humanity: Adolfo Nicolás, SJ

Religion is less a code of doctrines and moral teachings than it is a sensitivity to the “dimensions of transcendence that underlie our human experiences,” said Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, SJ, the Superior General of the global Society of Jesus. Speaking at a celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the Jesuit-run Sophia University in Japan, Nicolás linked this sensitivity and openness to “transcendence, depth, gratuity, and beauty” to the appreciation of music.

Nicolas.SJ“Religion is first of all very much more like this musical sense than a rational system of teachings and explanations.”

Can I just say: This is a guy I’d really like to meet.

“We are not in education for proselytism,” said Nicolás, addressing Jesuit educators from around the world, “but for transformation. We want to form a new kind of humanity that is musical, that retains this sensitivity to beauty, to goodness, to the suffering of others, to compassion.” Sounding much like Pope Francis, his brother Jesuit, Nicolás continued, “But of course, this is a sensitivity that is threatened today by a purely economic or materialist mindset which deadens this sensitivity to deeper dimension of reality.”

“Just as this musical sense is being eroded and weakened by the noise, the pace, the self-images of the modern and postmodern world, so is religious sensitivity.”

What to do about this diminished religious-musical sensitivity — a condition Nicolás has elsewhere called “the globalization of superficiality”? What ought to be the mission of the church and, more pointedly, the Jesuit institutions that educate young people?

“I suggest that mission today . . . must first of all work toward people helping discover or rediscover this musical sense, this religious sensibility,” said Nicolás, “this awareness and appreciation of dimensions of reality that are deeper than instrumental reason or materialist conceptions of life allow us.” Did I mention that I’d really like to meet this guy?

Nicolás also urged the staff and faculty at Sophia University not to make the institution a place that is “primarily market driven.” “Competition, the search for higher rankings for the sake of even more economic gain, has become the driving force for some institutions,” he said. “It would be a tragedy if our universities simply replicated the rationality and self-understandings of our secular, materialist world. Our reason for being in education is completely different.”

Why are Jesuit institutions in the business of educating young people? “We offer a Christian education because we are convinced that Christ offers horizons beyond the limited interests of economy or material production, that Christ offers a vision of a fuller humanity that takes the person outside himself or herself in care and concern for others.” Can I hear the people say Amen?

Recently I was in a meeting with Fr. Michael Graham, SJ, the president of Xavier University in Cincinnati where I teach. Fr. Graham has been consulting with small groups of faculty and staff to solicit our perspectives and even our advice about the present challenges and future horizon of Xavier University as we move forward.

When it came my turn to speak, I had one small piece of advice to offer Fr. Graham. “Please, listen to everything that comes from the mouth of Adolfo Nicolás.” Like few other leaders on the world stage, Nicolás seems to me deeply attuned to the particular signs of our times as they play out in the lives and imaginations of our young people, especially with regard to the formative impact, for better and often for worse, of new technologies.

And he consistently invites us to hear the distinctive “music” of Ignatian spirituality as a pathway of intellectual depth, imaginative creativity, and hopefulness through the present challenges of our times. “We want to form a new kind of humanity that is musical, that retains this sensitivity to beauty, to goodness, to the suffering of others, to compassion.”

One more thing. A critical dimension of musical sensitivity — I’m tempted to say the first and most important thing – is an appreciation for silence, a “taste for silence,” as Nicolás puts it in the interview below. While he is speaking here of Jesuit formation, his insights, I think, apply no less to all of us. The “education of our hearts,” the path toward forming a new kind of humanity, begins in silence.

“We can live in great simplicity in the middle of people and yet be carriers of silence.” Let the people say Amen.

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